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Greece re-iterates the limits of their claims on the Elgin Marbles

Greek Culture Minster, Evangelos Venizelos, has issued a statement, clarifying what Greece is & isn’t asking to be returned – and that the requests against the British Museum only include the sculptures from the Parthenon, despite assertions from the museums that this would be the tip of the iceberg, leading to more artefacts returning afterwards.

New York Times [1]

December 13, 2002
Greece Affirms Limits to Elgin Marbles Claim

Greece’s case for the return of the so-called Elgin Marbles — fragments of the Parthenon frieze now housed in the British Museum — has nothing to do with claims for the repatriation of other cultural assets, Evangelos Venizelos, the Greek culture minister, said yesterday.

He was responding to a recent statement signed by 18 museum directors representing most of the major museums of the United States and Europe (except those in Britain and most of those in Italy). The statement affirmed the museums’ right to hold on to artworks that have long been in their collections.

“We do not intend to claim other fragments of friezes on display in other museums and which are not linked with programs like the one we have for the Acropolis Museum and the Parthenon,” Mr. Venizelos said in a statement that linked Greece’s current campaign for the return of the Parthenon frieze to the 2004 Summer Olympic Games to be held in Athens.

This claim is different, he argued. “The Parthenon Marbles are part of a standing monument,” he explained. He added that a special museum was being built to house what Greek officials hope will be a display of all the surviving remnants of the original fifth-century B.C. frieze. (Some are now in Athens.) Lord Elgin removed a part of the frieze in 1801, when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and sold it to the British Museum in 1811.

The museums’ statement, which never mentioned the Parthenon Marbles, was meant as a collective defense of collections that were put together in another era, before countries like Greece became more protective of their cultural patrimony. The statement argued that museums, as the guardians of artifacts from civilizations around the world, had become international institutions with missions that transcended national boundaries.

Andrew Hamilton, a spokesman for the British Museum, said that Neil MacGregor, the museum’s director, purposely did not sign the statement so as not to detract from its larger purpose. “It was felt this initiative would be more valuable as a movement by museums in Europe and the United States that have not yet made their position on restitution clear,” Mr. Hamilton said.

But the Greek government, which has been lobbying the British Museum for the return of the marbles for more than two decades, has argued that a combined display of the Parthenon’s frieze would not challenge the roles and functions of major museums. “On the contrary,” Mr. Venizelos said, it “affirms them.”

As construction of the new Athens museum proceeds, the Greeks have been pressing their case with increasing intensity. The subject was raised last month at a meeting between Prime Minister Costas Simitis of Greece and Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair.

But the British government and the British Museum, a national institution, have not budged. “Neil MacGregor has made clear our position,” Mr. Hamilton said, “which is that the British Museum is the best place for the marbles, and they are part of a select group of objects that are the core of the museum’s collection, which cannot be loaned.”

The Italian government has taken a different stance, and this week returned to Greece a small piece of the Parthenon frieze, depicting the foot of the goddess Peitho. A gift of a British diplomat in the 19th century, it had been in a museum in Palermo, Sicily. Mr. Venizelos, who received the fragment on Wednesday, said its return was a gesture of “great symbolic significance.”